Obama library offers hope for urban renewal, but no guarantees

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park, which opened in 2004, reportedly has attracted $2.5 billion in economic development to downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. [Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki/Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons]

The potential impact of the Barack Obama Presidential Library on Chicago is impressive. One economic study projects the library would attract 800,000 annual visitors, who would spend $31 million on food and shopping in the surrounding neighborhood — enough to support 30 new restaurants, 11 new retail outlets and a new hotel. Overall, the study estimates the library would pump $220 million into the city’s economy every year, and create 1,900 permanent new jobs.

However, there are no guarantees the library would revitalize any of the proposed areas on the city’s south or west sides. As experts point out, no presidential library has ever been built in the middle of an urban residential neighborhood.

That uncertainty hasn’t stopped many city residents from rallying around the jobs, development and tourism the Obama library might bring to a historically neglected section of a city that is overall rich with world-class destinations.

“If the developers do it right, it could be a catalyst for a new way of thinking about development on the South Side,” said Byron Freelon, a member of the Washington Park Woodlawn Community Coalition for the Obama Presidential Library. “We want to see a library that will have a positive impact on the community.”

Although President Barack Obama will be the 14th president to build a library to house his official papers and records from his presidency, his predecessors have mostly stuck to middle-class neighborhoods or university campuses, said Ben Hufbauer, a University of Louisville professor and author of Presidential Temples, a book about presidential libraries.

“The Clinton Library is the best case of a presidential library put in a depressed area that sparked revival,” Hufbauer said of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. The library was built in an abandoned building in the warehouse district of the city’s downtown, in part, to spur economic development, Hufbauer said. “It sparked a boom of revival.”

There are five contenders from Chicago bidding to be home to the Obama library. The University of Chicago — who many see as the frontrunner, in part because of its longstanding ties to the Obamas — has proposed building the library not on its Hyde Park campus, but in one of its neighboring communities that could “greatly benefit from the economic development the library would bring,” according to a university press release.

A Bronzeville community group has bid for the former site of the Michael Reese Hospital, near the McCormick Place convention center, with a goal “to revitalize the historic Bronzeville community,” according to the bid.

A developer of the former U.S. Steel’s South Works site has also made a bid, offering to incorporate it into the massive Chicago Lakeside Development, which encompasses 600 acres on the southeast lakefront.

The University of Illinois at Chicago touts its role as a public university and has proposed three sites on its west side campus; Chicago State University has made a bid for its south side campus.

Neighborhood residents are hoping Obama’s library would generate the same economic windfall as Clinton’s and coalitions are forming to try and protect community interests if an Obama library were to be built here. Hawaii, where Obama grew up, and Columbia University in New York, where Obama got his master degree, have also made bids for the library.

“The community agrees, we need this,” said John Paul Jones, president of the Sustainable Englewood Initiative and community organizer with the Developing Communities Project, a group Obama once worked for before launching his political career. “The potential of it coming to Chicago is very high. Our greatest hope is it comes south of 55th Street because that signals a greater chance of an African-American benefit.”

Coalitions are busy drafting community benefits agreements, which are legally binding contracts between a developer and a broad-based coalition that protect a community’s interest in exchange for support for a specific project.

Communities across the country, from Los Angeles to New York, have established successful CBAs, including projects for the Los Angeles Airport and Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. CBAs often include requirements for local hiring and job training, consideration of ripple-effect development, environmental protections and education, as well as protection for homeowners — such as property tax freezes.

In Chicago, a community benefits agreement has already been drafted for the Chicago Lakeside Development project; the Obama library would be rolled into the contract, according coalition members.

“If there’s no CBA, is there really accountability from the developer? There is, unfortunately, opportunity for gentrification and that is what we don’t want,” said Flora Digby, a member of the Lakeside Coalition for the Community Benefits Agreement. “We want it to complement the existing community and be a part of the existing community.”

Donna Hampton-Smith, president of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce agreed.

“We would like a community benefits agreement for the development that takes place in our community because many times the residents of the community are left out of the process,” she said.

But experts caution that economic studies can sometimes over promise and under deliver. Indeed, the Obama library study was commissioned by the University of Chicago, of the contenders.

“The numbers are ooh and ahh,” said Don Haider, professor of social enterprise at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “They’re Annie Oakley. Anything you can do, I can do better.”

But city residents are optimistic the library would bring hope and rejuvenate the city’s South Side. Marvin Green grew up just blocks away from Chicago State University, in Roseland, a neighborhood plagued by poverty and violence.

“From my perspective, it would be a positive thing, obviously,” said Green, 29, as he waited for an ‘L’ train at the nearby 95th Street station. “The less fortunate don’t have access to the newer forms of technology to do research. It would be a plus.”

The Barack Obama Foundation, which Obama created to plan the development, will winnow the list later this year. Obama and the First Lady will make the final decision, expected early next year.

“It’s very hard to quantify the benefits these libraries have had,” Haider said. “Will it be a spur to development in the area? Hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants, related-educational organizations that may feed off this thing? It’s all caught up in the assumptions.”

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